(Acts 1:1-14; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53)
As I studied the history of Christianity and the church while in divinity school in the 1990s, I formed the opinion that the church and society in the late 20th Century was similar, in many ways, to the early church and society in the 1st Century A.D. in the Roman Empire. Just like society in the USA in the late 20th – and now in the 21st – Century, society in the 1st Century Roman Empire was multicultural, multireligious, and multiracial. The Roman Empire had made it possible to travel more easily, so different cultures, religions, and races came into contact with one another. Christianity was new, the Christian church was just being formed, and it wasn’t the dominant religion or culture in the known world. As a matter of fact, the early church was often persecuted due to misunderstanding about its practices (some thought Christians were cannibals because they ate the body and drank the blood of Jesus) or because Christians would not proclaim Caesar as Lord.
The story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the disciples’ response highlights another similarity between the church and society then and today. The disciples had been through a lot in their three years with Jesus: He had called them to be his disciples and they had followed him. They had journeyed with him for three years of preaching, teaching, healing, and conflict. They had witnessed his betrayal, arrest, trial, conviction, crucifixion, and burial. They had been shocked by his resurrection. They had enjoyed “extra” time (time after death) with him while they continued to learn from him.
After all of this, at the end of 40 days from the resurrection, they gathered with Jesus, and he told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit baptized them as the Father had promised would happen. The disciples wondered if this was the time when Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
After he had said this, while they were watching, he was taken up into heaven and disappeared in a cloud from their sight. Well, of course, the disciples stood gaping at Jesus while he was being lifted up, and continued to gape after he disappeared in a cloud. I mean, it’s not every day that you see someone lifted up into heaven and disappear in a cloud. One minute they were conversing with Jesus; the next, he was miraculously traveling into the sky until he disappeared. Can’t you just picture the disciples staring into the sky, mouths open, shocked and surprised?
They didn’t have long to be shocked and surprised, however, because soon two angels appeared (men wearing white robes who appear suddenly are always angels in the Bible) and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11). In other words: “Hey, he’s gone and isn’t coming back for a while. Stop standing there like you think something else is going to happen right now. Get back to your disciple work!”
So they went back to Jerusalem to the upper room where they had been staying and were in constant prayer along with the Mary, his mother, his brother, and the women. They were, also, continually in the temple blessing God according to the Gospel According to Luke (Lk 24:53). So, they were either praying together in the upper room or blessing God together in the temple.
This story is similar to our story as Jesus’ disciples today. Christianity has been the dominant religion in America since its founding. It has also been the dominant religion in the Western world since Constantine declared it to be legal in the 4th Century. Christendom existed, therefore, from the 4th Century to the mid-20th Century. Christianity was woven into the fabric of society so much so that those who were not Christian were often persecuted in some way, shape, or form. Some of the worst events in the history of Christianity happened because Christians were in power and could use their power to oppress and persecute, something I don’t think Jesus would have wanted us to do, seeing that he is the servant savior who died on a cross to break the power of sin and evil.
We who have grown up as church-going Christians in America are used to Christianity and church being woven into the fabric of society in our country. Until the mid-to-late 20th Century, going to church was just what you did if you were an upstanding citizen of your town or city and country. Parents were deacons, or elders, or serving on a church board or committee, or singing in the choir, or teaching Sunday School, or leading the Youth Group or any combination of these things. Children were expected and required to go to church. There was nothing else taking place on Sunday mornings. After church, families had big Sunday dinners. Life looked like it does in Norman Rockwell paintings.
But, our society has changed, which means that church in our society has changed. Even though Christianity is still the dominant religion in America, church attendance, particularly in Mainline Protestant churches – which is what we are as American Baptists – is shrinking on a continuing basis. We, like the disciples as they watched Jesus disappear into the sky, are left standing and gaping as we watch our Mainline Protestant churches shrink. They have not disappeared fully, yet, but the trend is unmistakable. And so we watch, stupefied.
The angels come to us today through the scriptures to ask us why we stand staring as our churches disappear. They remind us that we need to stop staring and get back to our disciple work, which, at this moment, is to remain where we are, constantly praying to God and continually blessing God while we await the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and guidance about what the Church will be in its next iteration.
A friend of mine – a retired American Baptist clergywoman – posted a quote by Phyllis Tickle on her Facebook page this week, which states, “Christianity isn’t going to die! It just birthed out a new tributary to the river. Christianity is reconfiguring. It’s almost going through another adolescence. And it’s going to come out a better, more mature adult. There’s no question about that.” Tickle is no longer living, but she was a teacher, professor, academic dean, publisher, author, and Episcopalian Christian. She concerned herself with the changes in Christianity in America and its future. She looked to the past, also, to understand the transformations that had occurred in Christianity throughout history. She believed that about every 500 years, Christianity would go through a major change. According to an article written by Kyle Roberts for the online magazine Patheos:
Tickle kicks the book off with her metaphor of the “Rummage Sale.” The state of Christianity today is akin to cleaning out your attic, discerning the still-useful from the not-so-useful. Deciphering sentimental memorabilia from cluttering junk. What should be kept? What should be sold? Who gets to decide?
Tickle says that if we look back in history, we see these Rummage Sales occurring about every 500 years. 500 years ago takes us to the Great Reformation . . . 500 years from the Reformation takes us to the Great Schism, when Eastern and Western Christianity bid adieu with a not-so-fond farewell. 500 years from then takes us back to Gregory the Great and the tumultuous times of the so-called Dark Ages.
[H]er point is that the history of Christianity (like the history of all great religions and movements) has within it longer periods of (relative) stability marked by starker transition moments that blossom out into something new and different. . . .
Tickle says that in our day Christianity is in the middle of a paradigm shift into what she calls the “Great Emergence.”. . . Tickle notices that Christianity on the whole is changing–as the ground underneath it gives way, forcing the issue of . . . adaptation to new models, new morals, [and] new ways of doing church and faith. Some changes might be radical; others are refined modifications.
Tickle is only one voice among the many that concern themselves with the future of Christianity. However, when I read her quote on my friend’s Facebook page, it gave me hope. As a Christian and a pastor, I am concerned, of course, about the future of Christianity and the future of this little ol’ church here: our own beloved Canton Community Baptist Church. I have to deal with my anxiety about the future of my religion and my church on a regular basis. Tickle’s writing, however, reminds me that we are part of just one era in the history of the development of Christianity. Christianity has gone through other crises and survived. It will do so again. Of that, we can be sure, because, as the Letter to the Ephesians states, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:20-23). However, it is not for us “to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
Even though it is challenging to be living during a time of crisis in our religion and to not know what the future holds for us, it is also a privilege: We are witnesses of the new thing God is doing. John F. Kennedy once said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.” It is our job as Jesus’ disciples during this crisis in our religion to be aware of the danger to it, but to, also, recognize the opportunity for it to become what God wants it to be in this day and age. The way that we do both things is to pray constantly and bless God continually, like those first disciples who watched their Lord and Savior be lifted up and away from them and disappear in a cloud. They returned to their dwelling place and their temple to pray constantly and bless God continually. We are to do the same. We are to stand with our feet on the ground, our eyes raised to heaven, our hands clasped in prayer, and our hearts filled with praise. In time, the Holy Spirit will lead us to the next step.
In the meantime, let us pray with Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give [us] a spirit of wisdom and revelation as [we] come to know him, so that, with the eyes of [our] heart[s] enlightened, [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called [us], what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (1:17-19). Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, May 28, 2017, the Seventh Sunday of Easter and the Ascension of the Lord.